Reading for Unreadability: Racializing Asians During the Long Cold War

By Kion YouJanuary 26, 2021

Reading for Unreadability: Racializing Asians During the Long Cold War

Tonal Intelligence by Sunny Xiang

THE FEAR OF Asian inscrutability — the Orientalist, “yellow peril” variety that presents Asians as unreadably devious — has been a mainstay in American politics: in the late 19th century, it was ideological fuel for the Chinese Exclusion Act; in the early 20th, it morphed into fear over Japanese military ascendency; today, it manifests as the “Chinese Flu” and rumored CCP espionage. Yet the phrase “yellow peril,” and the related “yellow wave” and “yellow world,” engender less a feeling of terror than one of creeping unease.

Sunny Xiang takes these geopolitical feelings seriously in her debut monograph, Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability During the Long Cold War. She analyzes representations of Asians during the Cold War not through a lens of “friend or foe” or “East versus West” — slippery racial categories masquerading as incontrovertible truths. Rather, she reads fictional and nonfictional texts on the basis of “tone,” which, although an equally slippery category, proves more useful in analyzing how “Orientals,” who exemplify “the cold war’s suspicious thinking,” have been racialized.

Xiang does not strictly define tone, but borrows from other definitions, such as Sianne Ngai’s characterization of tone as the “global or organizing affect, its general disposition or orientation toward its audience and the world,” and Monroe Beardsley’s conception as “the speaker’s attitude toward the receiver.” A close cousin of tonal readings is the popular “affect theory” championed by literary scholars like Ngai and Lauren Berlant, in which texts and cultural artifacts are read in terms of their mood, atmosphere, and feeling.

In Tonal Intelligence, Xiang applies affect theory to geopolitics, specifically the “cold war” (intentionally lowercase), which she defines less as a sequence of battles and more as the United States’s 20th-century posturing against communist encroachment. Thus, with a war that is less a timeline and more a temperament, and within it the role of Orientals, a “perfect cross of the racial and ideological unknowns,” Xiang claims that tone is “maybe our best resource” to get to a truer and more robust reading of race in this period.


In the fall of 2017, Jane Hu wrote an article entitled “The ‘Inscrutable’ Voices of Asian-Anglophone Fiction” for The New Yorker, in which she interviewed Xiang, introducing me to her work. At the time I was a sophomore in college, newly exposed to the simple fact that Asian American literature existed, and I was voraciously consuming the writers Hu examines — Weike Wang, Tao Lin, Kazuo Ishiguro — reveling in their “impersonal” and “quiet” narratorial voices. Of course there were emotive narrators written by Asian Americans, as well as inexpressive narrators written by non-Asians, but it was Wang’s and Ishiguro’s narrators who I found myself reflected in, and I wondered if the stereotype of Asians as “inscrutable” or even “unfeeling” and “automated” was grounded in some degree of truth.

Hu suggests different possibilities for this detached style: the pressures of capitalist bureaucracy, the preponderance of Asians in analytical STEM fields, and the repression of intergenerational trauma. At the time, however, I was dissatisfied with the article, wanting clarity on a nonexistent “Asian Condition,” and so a few years later I followed Hu’s sources and found myself reading Tonal Intelligence.

Of course there is no possible way to label all of East Asia as having a particular character trait, but what Tonal Intelligence does is drill deeper into inscrutability, poking at the different motivations of cold war Asians masking and unmasking themselves, whether they are complicit with Western hegemony or opposed to it. Xiang reads diversely, pairing historical texts with fictional counterparts: the hapless speeches of Emperor Hirohito with Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, the ruthlessly pro-American speeches of Induk Pahk with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s melancholic Dictee, Wang Tsun-ming’s POW testimonies of Chinese brainwashing with Ha Jin’s fictional memoir War Trash, and Edward Lansdale’s thrilling CIA reports with Trinh Minh-ha’s self-reflexive documentaries.

The novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, the British Japanese winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize, have been interpreted in countless ways, which in itself is representative of Asian inscrutability: his vaguely European characters are at times received as white and British due to their politesse and restraint (Kathy H., a human clone, in Never Let Me Go; or Stevens, a British butler, in The Remains of the Day), but at other times are racialized as Japanese for the same reason.

Xiang, however, skirts any dialogue linking personality traits to racial truths, and instead prods at the significance of Masuji Ono, the protagonist of one of Ishiguro’s earliest works, An Artist of the Floating World (1986). In Artist, set a few years after World War II, Ono reflects on the morality of his role as a propaganda painter for Imperial Japan. However, Xiang writes that Artist, presumably a novel built on Ono’s journey toward accepting guilt, is actually about Ono’s journey toward accepting that his role in the war was inconsequential.

Ono deludes himself with false rumors, often quoting others as expressing admiration toward him, as well as taking pride in his ability “to rise above the sway of things” and “to rise above the mediocre.” Matsuda, Ono’s friend, tells him, “Army officers, politicians, businessmen. […] They’ve all been blamed for what happened to this country. But as for the likes of us, Ono, our contribution was always marginal.” Ono’s own daughter says, “Father is wrong to even begin thinking in such terms about himself. Father was, after all, a painter.”

Xiang argues that Ono’s self-delusion, his indistinctiveness masquerading as exceptionalism, sheds light onto Asian inscrutability. When historically contextualized, Ono’s behavior can be read amid the United States’s cold war “liberation” of Japan post–World War II, in which a state-sanctioned regime of forgetting encouraged Japanese imperialists to look forward toward democracy instead of dwelling on past sins. Thus, in Ono, Xiang does not see a case study in how guilt somehow defines Japaneseness, but an Ishiguro protagonist who strives toward distinctiveness but fails, revealing the “perceptual illusion” of race and character. It is here where Xiang lands her argument:

In neutralizing the presence of characters, the tone of Ishiguro’s novels prevents us from looking for racial meaning in an exotic name, a marked trait, a bloodline, an official document, or any kind of verifiable source. At the same time, this disquietingly quiet tone also shows how the unavailability of a legible identity and a coherent politics, particularly at times of historical transition and geopolitical turmoil, can contribute to the racialization of Asians as unknowable.


Although Xiang primarily looks at texts and films created by Asians, she also examines the memoirs and reports of Edward Lansdale, a CIA officer overseeing the Saigon Military Mission in the 1950s. Unlike Ishiguro, who writes from outside Japan but is ethnically Japanese, Lansdale was immersed in Vietnamese culture but wrote as a white American, whose ultimate goal was psychological warfare against North Vietnam. It was Lansdale’s job to see through Asian homogeneity and feel out “good” versus “bad” Asians, a project that Xiang takes as fertile ground for tonal analyses.

Xiang picks apart a particular passage in Lansdale’s memorandum “‘Pacification’ in Vietnam,” in which he writes,

These were Free Asians, who cheerfully and energetically helped their fellow men. […] The Filipinos had defeated the Communist Huk guerrillas at home, and imparted hope for the future. The “OB” teams made up their own songs, held parties in off-duty hours, and were a real tonic to the dispirited. […] One side effect of the presence of pretty Filipino girl doctors, nurses, dentists, and nutritionists was that many a male Vietnamese started learning English so he could talk to them.

Xiang argues that Lansdale’s tone of optimistic cheer, in which the Filipino and Filipina “Brothers” stand at the forefront of global anticommunism, obscures his ulterior plotting, the fact that he himself took down the Huk guerillas and brought over the Brothers.

However, Xiang simultaneously challenges the “Lansdale-as-puppeteer and Asians-as-puppet” stereotype by focusing on the informal, concealed labor of the “pretty” Filipina medical professionals. Xiang analyzes how Lansdale defines the Filipina “Brothers” by their seductiveness, in which inscrutability is an asset, but she hints at the possibility that Lansdale himself had fallen prey to this same cajoling: Lansdale was only able to foster such intimate relations with the Brothers through his own Filipina lover and eventual wife, Patrocinio Yapcinco Kelly, who mediated and interpreted for him. In fact, Lansdale had an entire retinue of Filipino and Vietnamese understudies who both bolstered his self-mythification but also pursued their own independent goals.

Essentially, Xiang argues that Lansdale swaggers with authorial arrogance, believing that through his convivial tone, he can write onto these inscrutable Asians a singular allegiance to American democracy. However, unlike Ishiguro, Lansdale fails to understand the difference between malleability and inscrutability, that inscrutability can weaponize malleability just as much as it can be beholden to it.


In her coda, Xiang insists that the lowercase cold war has not ended, but simply transitioned into a “post–cold war” era predicated on Asian economic ascendance, “a paranoid reaction to global economic and data flows.” Xiang illustrates the origins of this “paranoia” toward Asia through the image of the “replicant” in Blade Runner — human on the outside, superhuman on the inside — a “radically compromised link between visible surfaces and hidden depths.”

Xiang mentions several “post–cold war Asian diaspora” writers such as Ed Park, Pamela Lu, and Eugene Lim, but the one author Xiang does not mention, whose work I believe to be closest to the Blade Runner “replicant,” is Tao Lin, specifically his 2013 novel, Taipei, which exemplifies his affectless, internet-age autofiction. Taipei records narrator Paul’s meandering life in New York, and the book’s lonely, identity-less characters are reminiscent of Ishiguro’s own.

Lin’s literary style is plain and hyper-literal, frequently showing Paul as “cringing,” “depleted,” or “disengaged.” In addition to consuming numerous drugs, frequenting Whole Foods, and spending hours each day on the internet, Paul takes numerous trips to his parents’ home in Taiwan, which, through its latent tensions with China, can be read as a fulcrum of what has been deemed the “New Cold War” or “Second Cold War.” Paul characterizes Taipei as a “fifth season” and an “otherworld,” using almost the same Techno-Orientalist imagery as Blade Runner and its cyberpunk relatives.

Xiang’s conception of the replicant, with its ruptured link between phenotype and psyche, can be seen through Paul’s internet browsing, which embodies the way he interfaces with society: “He [Paul] closed his eyes and thought of the backs of his eyelids as computer screens; both could display anything imaginable, so had infinite depth, but as physical surfaces were nearly depthless.” This paradox of the inscrutable internet, which is inflected onto Lin’s seemingly unfeeling protagonist, is exactly what has so polarized the book’s critics, and thus revealed the literary industry’s dogged inability to address Asian inscrutability.

In The Atlantic, Hua Hsu writes, “[T]here’s something unusual about a writer being so transparent, so ready to tell you every insignificant detail of a seemingly eventful day, so aware of his next novel's word count, yet also remaining so opaque, mysterious, ‘inscrutable.’” Frank Guan has labeled Lin “the first great male Asian author of American descent,” while Lydia Kiesling asks, “Why does he take away my joy?”

In 2014, Lin faced two statutory rape allegations, but came out of them relatively unscathed. No doubt his literary celebrity and the patriarchal institutions supporting him offered him protection. But I wondered if Lin’s post-scandal reemergence was somewhat aided by his detached narrators (and by extension his own persona), who, through their affectless Asianness, have been read as neither good nor evil, but simply desireless.

If glossing Taipei, Xiang would perhaps read Paul’s loneliness, his realization that “technology had begun for him to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness,” as symptomatic of post–cold war, capitalist segmentation. She might respond to Paul’s countless online messages in concert with Ishiguro’s gossiping characters, revealing how mindless chatter is not constitutive of some “Asian” identity, but rather its lack thereof.

Yet Taipei also reveals the limits of tonal analyses. Xiang herself acknowledges the consequences of a tonal, rather than a historical or ideological reading: by eschewing categories such as “race” and “war,” Xiang also problematizes their concurrent modes of solidarity, whether identity-based organizing or antiwar mobilization. Xiang proposes instead a post-human politics of “proxemics,” unbound to “heroic” humans and superficial connections, stating, “Moods can move us to move together.” However, what is the use of parsing for tone when Taipei’s characters begin as digitally isolated subjects and end up just the same, with no sense of material connection, no means toward greater collectivity?

In Tonal Intelligence, Xiang’s achievement lies in how well she reads Asian inscrutability. Although her gestures toward solidarity, by way of affective registers, may be a bit too abstract, her tonal analyses do much good in feeling out just how facile the rhetoric of racial essentialism truly is.


A recent graduate of Brown University, Kion You is a freelance writer based in Seoul, South Korea. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review, Rewire, and The College Hill Independent.

LARB Contributor

A recent graduate of Brown University, Kion You is a freelance writer based in Seoul, South Korea. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review, Rewire, and The College Hill Independent.


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